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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. By A. Roger Ekirch (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005. xxxii plus 447 pp. $25.95).

At Day's Close is a social history of night in pre-industrial Europe and America, with particularly deep coverage of English sources. In this attractively illustrated and very accessible book, A. Roger Ekirch paints a picture of nighttime as a magical landscape full of "opportunity and promise" for the disenfranchised. But this alternative realm is also characterized by fear of the treacherous unknown. The dark of night could conceal wolves, demons, thieves and arsonists and, perhaps worst of all in urban areas, destructive, upper-class rakes. Ekirch covers uncharted territory here--night has not previously been considered a worthy topic of study in and of itself--but his sources and conclusions are, in many cases, comfortably familiar. Generations of historians have explored evening phenomena like bundling, charivaris, spinnestube, storytelling, witchcraft, fear of fire and fear of the dark. The plentiful anecdotes that form the base of Ekirch's evidence reveal pre-industrial people doing pretty much what we always thought they did at nighttime. Nonetheless, when all of these cases are put together with Ekirch's insights and his path-breaking conclusions about pre-industrial sleep patterns, we have a work that makes a major impact on our understanding of the social history of this era.

Two aspects of Ekirch's book merit particular attention. First, his discussion of sleeping habits in pre-industrial Europe and America, which was first introduced in an American Historical Review article, is innovative and provocative. Ekirch argues that before the introduction of artificial light, people's sleep was actually broken into two parts: "first sleep", followed by a period of an hour or so when individuals experienced restful meditation ("quiet wakefulness", p. 300), and then a second sleep through to morning time. Ekirch's evidence for this is suggestive, but not truly definitive: In the English sources, for example, he found eighty-three references to "first sleep" in seventy-two different sources from the period 1300-1800. He also clearly has massive amounts of evidence that people's sleep was often disrupted (by the need to urinate, the calls of the night watch, the bites of fleas and the snores of bedmates, etc.). In addition, there have been a few modern studies that suggest that subjects who are deprived of artificial lighting develop sleep habits that mirror the disrupted, bipartite model Ekirch has found. Putting all of this together, Ekirch concludes that pre-industrial sleep patterns were profoundly different from our own, and that the opportunity to lie awake and reflect on their dreams in the middle of the night "allowed many to absorb fresh visions before returning to unconsciousness," visions that may have been "sources of self-revelation, solace and spirituality" (322). While this is a fascinating idea that may offer profound insights into early modern psyches, more direct evidence and deeper analysis of this phenomenon is necessary to render this conclusion completely compelling.

Second, Ekirch's view of the relationship of the "lower orders" to the night time is a complex and intriguing one. On one hand, those who did not enjoy security, privacy and warmth were especially subject to all of night's worst ills: the threat of fire, crime, interrupted sleep. On the other hand, the laboring poor, and those who worked in crafts and trades had particular opportunities for self expression after dark, and Ekirch even portrays them as having "de facto control", with their "cluster of overlapping subcultures dominating the landscape at night" (249-51). Their night time carousals may have enhanced their sense of autonomy and served as a safety valve, releasing the steam of social disorder, but Ekirch comes to the inescapable conclusion that the lower classes must also have suffered severe and chronic sleep deprivation. This is a simple and compelling insight that demands that we think in new ways about the lived experience of pre-industrial laborers and artisans. Less compelling is Ekirch's attempt to extend the analysis of the empowering qualities of night-time to women's experience. Some elite and even some lower class women may have enjoyed the anonymity of darkness, but the overwhelming majority of evidence here suggests that night time was a time of particular exploitation of and danger to women. Additional discussion of the gendered experience of night time would have been welcome in this text.

Although night time might be expected to have a completely static history, Ekirch's book emphasizes its dynamism. The stars and moon may not have changed over the period covered here, but European states altered dramatically, and as governance and concern over social order grew, so did attempts (however futile) by central authorities to regulate the activities that went on in streets and fields after evening fell. From the later middle ages, although night time was newly demonized, it was also especially appreciated for accommodating an increased concern for privacy, and Ekirch emphasizes night's importance in providing autonomy for pre-industrial people of all classes. At the same time, the early modern era also witnessed the expansion of working hours into the night. The most dramatic change in night time came about with the introduction of artificial lighting from the end of the eighteenth century. Ekirch's view on this mark of Western "progress" is fundamentally ambivalent: the lower orders lost out because "Whereas their forebears had once roamed cities and towns at will, exerting nocturnal authority over a vast domain, the indigent were increasingly confined to zones of darkness riddled by extensive crime" (335-6). And humanity as a whole lost both a view of the beauty of the night sky, and the opportunity to reflect on their dreams during the peaceful waking period between first and second sleep.

This lively and lucidly written book uses a vast array of source materials from across Europe and the American colonies, making particularly noteworthy use of diaries. In addition, Ekirch deftly includes recent work from the biological sciences to help his readers understand diverse physiological aspects related to human experiences of night time, from changes in eyesight, through circadian rhythms. This is a fascinating book which sheds important new light on the social history of the early modern era.

Susannah Ottaway

Carleton College
COPYRIGHT 2007 Journal of Social History
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Author:Ottaway, Susannah
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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